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16 November 2018

The BBC must not reduce the Brexit crisis to a soap opera

 House of Cards this is not. We have on our hands an intense political crisis which carries overarching economic ramifications for the whole country.

By Douglas Beattie Douglas Beattie

Even in this digital media age, there are still analogue episodes when you know the country is staring at TV screens.

So it was from the moment Dominic Raab’s resignation as Brexit secretary hit the airwaves. On the Today programme Nick Robinson halted an interview to inform listeners that Raab had decided the Brexit deal he himself had negotiated wasn’t worth the five hundred plus pages it’s written on. 

At such times Twitter simply will not do; a collective instinct kicks in and we tune to the BBC. Not exclusively the BBC, but rather like election night jamborees you know that despite highly polished offerings from SKY and ITV, the Beeb is where most of us are hanging out. 

That’s down to what the good folk of New Broadcasting House are likely to describe as “legacy”. The vast majority of us grew up with the BBC and at times of heightened national tension we expect to be guided by the de facto state broadcaster.

In the dozen years I worked for the Corporation as a journalist the start of the war in Iraq, death of Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother, were such moments when you feel the pressure of the nation’s glare. 

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A contact working for a major City bank told me how Raab’s departure had triggered a rarely used Code Emerald Alert which resulted in staff watching open-mouthed as the Brexit drama played out on TV and sterling nosedived.

It was indeed a dramatic day, but seeing it as political theatre only gets us so far. Brexit may be a tragedy but not of the Shakespearean kind. The BBC, with all that legacy status, is where we should find so much more than recurring questions about the length of time Theresa May is likely to survive in Downing Street. 

Alas, hour after hour, the chatter on our screens and across the airwaves was focused on “how can she get this through the Commons?” “Can she bring her party back together?” “What are the alternatives to May?” Talk inevitably turned to leadership challenges, to Jacob Rees Mogg’s antics and the strength of the European Research Group.

Yet Brexit has far graver consequences than a potential prime ministerial dethroning. The stockpiling of food and medical supplies in the event of a no deal and traffic chaos at ports do not bear thinking about; and though they have been discussed openly of late we heard precious little of this yesterday. 

True, Newsnight carried an interview from Northern Ireland in which one man worried about “the ability to put bread on the table” as a result of Brexit. However, this was only after the same programme had told us that “battered and bruised Theresa May limps on to fight another day.” 

Kirsty Wark posed the question “how safe do you think May is?” and Alan Duncan was asked how the Prime Minister was “bearing up” because he had “known her since Oxford”.

News at Ten on BBC1 told us that May had “pledged to fight on” and political editor Laura Kuenssberg informed viewers “Brexiteers are trying to march her to the exit”.

In a sense this is all perfectly understandable. The narrative of recent years has been of unending political drama – think Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, Donald Trump and the snap election.

No doubt journalists have grown used to such highs and a few are still around from the coup which undid Thatcher. That episode remains the template for extraordinary days at Westminster and there are echoes of 1990 in May’s treatment by both the media and her own MPs.

Brexit is a story unlike any other, one which should not be reduced to a soap opera, for House of Cards this is not. We have on our hands an intense political crisis which carries overarching economic ramifications for the whole country.

The BBC, and others besides, must in coming days go further and deeper in their coverage to convey the complexity and seriousness of the situation.

After all, just like prime ministers, there is a legacy to protect.